The T-cell response to hepatitis B virus envelope antigens was studied in 11 hepatitis B vaccine recipients; 7 were selected to analyze the fine specificity of the T-cell response to the preS1 antigen. Four distinct T-cell epitopes were identified by peripheral blood lymphomononuclear cell stimulation with a panel of short synthetic peptides covering the preS1 sequence. The immunodominance of the preS1 epitopes included within peptides 21-30 and 29-48 was shown by their capacity to restimulate an HLA class II restricted proliferative response of T cells primed with the whole preS1 antigen. Conversely, peptide-specific T cells selected by peripheral blood lymphomononuclear cell stimulation with peptides 21-30 and 29-48 were able to recognize the native preS1 molecule, confirming that these epitopes are actually generated by the intracellular processing of preS1. Finally, amino acid residues essential for T-cell activation by peptide 21-30 were identified using 10 analogues of the stimulatory peptide containing single alanine substitutions. These results may be relevant to the design of efficient synthetic vaccines against hepatitis B virus infection.
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